Splitting headache: why two-part seasons are a waste of time

Ozark season 3

My plan is to get you really heavily invested in this piece. I shall do this by conceiving well drawn, three-dimensional characters who have a rich inner life, yet with some sense of unknowability and darkness, perhaps with a past they are yet to confront. I’ll then create soaring and compelling arcs for every one of them, taking them through a milieu of high-concept storylines which will colour their worlds and experiences further. This will reel you – the viewer – further in, until you care about the protagonists as if they were one of your distant relatives, and, although they may do bad things sometimes, you’ll still root for them. I will also use words such as ‘milieu’ more, so that you can feel intelligent whilst you’re consuming it all. Oh, and it will all look gorgeous. Maybe I’ll use a nice font or some Word Art or something.

After all this brilliant writing, when I have you in the palm of my hand (figuratively speaking – I don’t have enough sanitiser for it to be literal), I will then announce that I have taken the creative decision to end this piece, and there will only be one paragraph left. But not before the NME, in their infinite and bountiful wisdom, take the decision to put the second half of the final paragraph into a separate article, to be published a year from now, leaving you screaming into your pillow – not only because you want to read it now, but also because this analogy has been drawn out for way too long.

The Walking Dead season 10
Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride in ‘The Walking Dead’ season 10. Credit: Jace Downs / AMC / The Hollywood Archive

A simpler way to start this would have been ‘you know those times when the final series of your favourite show is split into two seasons, what’s with that?’, but that would have had a negligible effect on the word count. This thought – hell, let’s call it an idea – was first sparked when Ozark – the much less funny cousin of Arrested Development (unless you count the final two seasons of Arrested Development) – announced its final season a few weeks ago, and then added that it would in fact be split in two, like your mum on a night out at Yates’s.

A decade ago, this may have raised some eyebrows – whyohwhy would a nice lengthy season of a high-flying show want to deplete its episode count and spread itself thinly over a couple of years? Surely this is the minuscule British-style episode count that Americans have always derided. Who was the first? Who started this frustrating trend? Well, as with most things at the moment, we can blame J. K. Rowling.

Deathly Hallows
‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ was split into two films – and TV soon picked up the trick. Credit: Alamy

If Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had been released as one film, it would have had a runtime of nearly five hours. What good fortune then, when Warner Bros. realised that by splitting it into two parts, they could eek out the most popular children’s film franchise of all time for another year?

This is arguably where TV caught onto this new trend, but it also makes sense for different reasons, and not only because it’s quite funny seeing a particular kind of person lose it on Twitter when they have to wait another year. In a narrative sense, you can have two season finales. This means, if everyone knows you’re building up to THE big climax anyway, you can have a mid-season cliff hanger. Not only is this fun to do as a writer, the networks and money people will be very happy too – season premieres and finales are where the big bucks (or Pounds, but mostly bucks) are made. This worked wonders for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, even The Good Place – if you build anticipation, they will come… so to speak. Your golden goose is kept alive for another year. There’s also the added bonus of being able to put the same show up for more awards – Bryan Cranston was able to take the Prime Time Emmy one year, Jon Hamm the next – this couldn’t have happened if the series hadn’t been split.

The Sopranos
‘The Sopranos’ never teased us with the mid-season break. Credit: HBO

Tony Soprano would never have done this to us – he had the good grace to bow out after a solid New Jersey Italian-style chunk of a season, cutting to black and leaving us frustrated in a different way. But now everyone’s doing it, it’s the new thing – television people love new things. I mean, look at EastEnders for crying out loud – running for 35 years and then – boom – nothing. Mid-season hiatus, leaving us all wondering how many more times Phil Mitchell can conceivably be shot, or if one day one of them will get a job where they have to commute.

But still it builds suspense, expectations – it makes us miss something both in the moment and in anticipation of it never coming back. I also have another theory about it, one so big it will shake the very foundations of the media landscape – honestly – it’s seismic. But you’ll have to return to this column in July 2021 to find out what it is.

To be concluded…

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